Global Traveler: What was your first reaction when you learned you’d be designing the aircraft we know today as the Boeing 747?
Joe Sutter: It was probably, “Oh, my gosh. How are we going to get an engine big enough to carry that weight?” The military had the C5, which was the same size but slower, with big, cumbersome wings. We had the technology to do it, but it would cost an awful lot of money.
We started in April 1966 and rolled out the first airplane 29 months later. The fellows today with all their computer know-how can’t design an airplane in less than four or five years. Nobody’s going to match 29 months.
GT: What goes into designing an airplane? What were the key elements you needed to address as you designed the 747?
JS: Designing an airplane is a rigorous process. First you have to find out what the customer wants. We were surprised when we found out they wanted something 21.2 times bigger than the 707. They wanted an airplane that could hold 350 to 400 passengers. That was a shock. With that knowledge, we had to determine what the plane would look like. The cross section of the fuselage is the most difficult to get right. First you have to make that decision. If it’s not right, you’ve failed before you’ve even started. We came up with the idea of the wide body with two aisles and three rows of seats. The 747 can also carry cargo pallets side by side. That was intentional, to be sure the airplane could adjust to forecast market changes. At the time, it was believed supersonic travel would take over long-haul business. One of the beauties of the 747 is that it’s a very efficient carrier of people, but also an efficient cargo carrier. When we started, there wasn’t airplane designed to do that. Today, air freight is a $55 billion business. It’s taken over passenger business.
When you’re looking at an airplane designed to carry passengers and cargo, that begins to determine how much the airplane will weigh. With that knowledge, you have to determine what kind of wings to put on the airplane. You put all that together, then you start doing more-refined design for the various elements of the airplane. Another critical decision — and it’s something people don’t think about much — is the landing gear. It has to carry the tremendous weight of the airplane. The 747 has four legs with four wheels each. Imagine trying to put four legs of landing gear into the airplane. If it’s not done right, you’ll lose fuel capacity. It’s done very cleverly in the 747. We had some pretty good engineers working on that. They got all 16 wheels into one box.
GT: I remember seeing photos of passengers aboard a 747, standing around a piano bar. Did the planes in service actually have piano bars at one time?
JS: When we designed the 747, our customers talked about including a lounge and stand-up piano bar. There were some beautiful mock-ups. I think Continental Airlines had a little piano bar on the 747 for a while. I’ve tried to find out what happened to that bar. It would be the only FAA-certified piano in the world. It should be in a museum somewhere.
GT: You led the design team for the 747. Did you ever fly the plane?
JS: No. I graduated from the University of Washington with an ensign’s commission. The war was on and I wanted to be a pilot, but I was trained as a deck officer. Later on, in the Pacific, they let me get into aviation as an engineering officer. I did a little flying with friends, who would take me up and let me handle the controls. I’m not a licensed pilot, but I could handle a Beechcraft.
GT: What are your thoughts on the future of aviation? What do you think about Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic initiative and the possibility of consumer space travel?
JS: Fast, comfortable, long-range airplanes that don’t have to stop in the middle of the night to take on fuel seem to be the trend. Because of the dry air, they’re also looking at putting humidifiers in airplanes.
You or I or our grandkids aren’t going to see space travel happen. There might be a few stunts, but it’s going to take more. Besides, what are you going to do when you get out there? You can’t play golf!
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